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Nuclear Waste - know the facts

As reports suggest that Tony Blair has decided to build new nuclear power stations in Britain, John Jappy reminds us of the menace and scale of Britain’s nuclear waste problem

With the decision due next year of the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management to recommend plans for disposal of the country’s nuclear waste, it is important to gain knowledge of what has been termed the “insoluble problem”. In the late 1980s, U.K. NIREX LTD published a so called discussion document under the title “The Way Forward” which set out in detail what would be entailed. One of the preferred options for burying the waste (referred to as a “National Repository”) was at Dounreay in Caithness. In a nutshell the proposals outlined were to dig a massive hole in the ground, bury the waste, and then walk away. The public at large were quick to refer to this as “a dump”. The papers disclosed that the amount of radioactive nuclear waste held for burial amounted to a staggering 1.5 million cubic meters, mostly at Sellafield in Cumbria. In terms of weight this was estimated by NIREX (Report No 71 dated March 89) at 3.3. million tonnes. Michael Meacher in an interview on T.V. this year stated that this could double

with the decommissioning of redundant nuclear reactors which is already underway. If these figures seem difficult to visualise, NIREX disclosed that to take the radioactive waste from Sellafield to Dounreay for burial would require 100 lorries and 10 trains a week for the next 50 years. Digging the hole to bury the waste would be a much bigger undertaking than the Channel Tunnel. The public at large recoiled in horror at the thought of this huge amount of traffic travelling the whole length of Scotland 365 days a year, up the busy A9, through the tourist traffic in summer and the heavy snows of winter (the Ord of Caithness being one of the most difficult routes to navigate at the best of times, in the winter the braes receive the full force of the Arctic blizzards). It was calculated, statistically, that this amount of traffic would result in an accident involving nuclear waste once a fortnight. Fortunately, these insane plans were dropped, not as we might expect because of the impracticalities of the scheme but because of the costs! Attention then turned to Sellafield itself. Soon, however, geological surveys found that the ground was unsuitable for retaining

these materials. So, we now await the next set of proposals. The nuclear industry will of course use all its propaganda procedures to play down the extent of the problem. I took part in several public debates with representatives of the nuclear industry. In one such debate when representatives from Dounreay and Sellafield took part the audience included school children. The rep from Dounreay stated “Plutonium is a metal found naturally in some parts of the world which could be shaped like the keel of a boat”. Fortunately, I was able to point out that the plutonium produced in the workings of a nuclear reactor is extremely radioactive being one of the most toxic substances known to man, one millionth of a gram, if swallowed, could prove fatal. “Radioactivity decays in time” is another reassuring statement made by the nuclear industry, but when we look at the timescale it is far from reassuring! Many radioactive elements will remain lethal for many


thousands of years:
l Uranium 235 will remain at full strength for 162,000 years when it will then become half strength(known as half-life). l Plutonium 239 will remain at constant strength for 24,000 years before commencing its half-life.
l Plutonium 241 is intensely radioactive for 14 years, on which it converts to a new element Amercium 241, probably the most toxic substance on earth (traces of Amercium 241 have been found on Sandside Bay at Dounreay). After 433 years, Amercium 241 becomes Neptunium, which remains consistently radioactive for 2,000,000 years, and so the process goes on ad infinitum


Different radioactive elements will attack different organs of the body, e.g. Plutonium - the lungs, Caesium (the main pollutant from Chernobyl) - the muscles and reproductive organs, Iodine - the thyroid glands, Ruthenium - the kidneys, Cobalt - the liver. At least NIREX in their papers showed awareness of the problem

stating that the “National Repository” would have to remain safe throughout the next ice age due in 100,000 years time. However they omitted to say that the predictions were, that by this time, the proposed site at Dounreay could be underwater. Another statement you may hear from the nuclear industry is that the amount of high level nuclear waste is small enough to be contained within two double decker buses. However, the nuclear industry have a novel way of dealing with radioactive high level waste. When it is removed from the reactor it is white hot. When it cools down in around 35 years time it is re-classified “intermediate level waste!”. To give some indication as to how much we can trust the nuclear industry, there is over a ton of radioactive plutonium lying at the bottom of the Irish Sea, much of which was discharged from Sellafield as “an experiment”. (If this were to be spread evenly across the earth it would wipe out all life on the planet). The Sellafield plant was heavily fined following some detective work by Greenpeace which caught in the

act one such “Erroneous” discharge. This resulted in the closing off of 20 miles of coastline from the public.

All of us who lived through the 1950s and 1960s have radioactive strontium 90 in our bones due to the atmospheric nuclear tests held at this time. This saw the number of cases of leukaemia in the U.K. soar by some ten fold, even though the tests were held in the Pacific on the other side of the world, showing that radiation knows no boundaries. The full extent of the Chernobyl disaster has yet to be assessed, but some years ago a leader in the British Medical Journal said that the amount of fatalities would be much higher than previously estimated. This information was produced by examining the lungs of young people in Eastern Europe killed in traffic accidents, which showed much more plutonium than was anticipated, with a likely 100,000 extra deaths.

Despite all this information being in the public domain, there is a strong lobby who want to build more nuclear power stations. In the words of the song - “When Will They Ever Learn?”

John Jappy

John Jappy is an ex Captain, Royal Artillery and a former senior civil servant in London. He is a widely recognised authority on nuclear issues and is secretary of Highland CND and vice president of Scottish CND.


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